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Before Pride & Ego -- Piecing Together Walter White's Childhood
Breaking Bad is, I think rightfully, lauded for its portrayal of meth-cooking good-man-gone-dark Walter White as a psychologically complex and dynamic character. However, while we know a lot about Walter White and his internal turmoil, what we never get much detail on is his distant past or his childhood. As a psychology student, and a fellow crazy person, I am accutely aware of how much our childhood experiences can affect us and how even later experiences can strongly shape us. As such I have resolved to try and piece together Walter White's distant past from the clues we have gotten on Breaking Bad and my own interpretation of the facts and characterization shown in the series. Let's start with...
-What we know for sure
*Walter's father died when he was still very young, probably leaving his mother to care for him alone.
*Walter never references a stephfather at any point even when talking about going to see his mother, etc. suggesting that his mother may never have remarried.
*Walter has a good university education (which are notoriously expensive).
*Walter sees accepting charity as a bad thing.
*Walter and Gretchen were once together.
*Walter left suddenly after meeting Gretchen's family without saying much and without Gretchen really knowing why he did it.
*Gretchen's family was wealthy before she ever started Grey Matter (as Walter mentions that she's a "rich girl" and Grey Matter was just "adding to your millions." in Peekaboo).
Now that that's out of the way, let's try our best to put these into a coherent puzzle of who Walter White is and what brought him to the point he's at when we catch up with him in the Pilot episode.
Let's start with how Walter White sees charity as a bad thing, as something which he does not want to accept even if it costs him his life or safety. Now while there are obviously other issues closer to present day that help explain this reluctance (such as his self-esteem issues about proving that he can make it without help), I think there's something deeper to the basic assumption he makes about charity being a bad thing. Since we know Walter's father died, and as far as we know his mother never remarried, there's a good chance that his mother had to raise him alone. As so often happens this could mean that his mother was at times in financial dire straits. But if I were to guess his mother, much like Walter, was a proud woman. Someone who despite these problems never wanted to accept anyone's money, wanted to be able to carry her son on her own and took great pride in the fact that she managed to do this, even putting him through college (but we'll get to that in a second). I think, if true, this would've greatly shaped Walter's perception of charity and given him the same resolve to do things on his own as his mother would've.
As mentioned before, despite the financial dire straits his mother sent him to a good college. Perhaps he went on a scholarship or perhaps she saved up for it her whole life. Whatever the reason, chances are that he was very thankful for this opportunity. An opportunity which I think put great weight on him to make something of himself to pay back his mother for the sacrifices she must've made to ensure his future success. However, in addition to that I'm sure many people in this place would've been from higher income families (as is so often the case). I can easily imagine them looking down their nose at young Walter, who unlike them came from a very modest home. As such I could easily see Walter coming to resent them (people from higher status in general) and resolving to make sure that he left them all in the dust. A strong drive to show them that they have no right to look down on him, proving them wrong by relying on his aptitude for chemistry and doing better than any of them in school.
I think this came to a head when, after being together with Gretchen for a while, he met her family for the first time. Being around her very wealthy family, who were presumably having a spectacular celebration for the 4th of July, no doubt made him feel once again less than those other people. Made him once again feel looked down upon. Maybe he actually heard them talking about him behind his back, maybe it was just paranoia that came from his earlier encounters with people from wealthy families at school or seeing the marvelous celebration they put on for the 4th of July. I think this is in the end what caused Walter to no longer be able to take it and caused him to leave Gretchen. Because he believed he did not and could never fit in with her family and he refused to be looked down upon.
A few years after this point he's just out of college and he has a rosy view of the future. After all he's contributed to nobel prise winning work, had great grades in college and presumably had a promising future ahead of him. His drive to do well still remains and this is when he buys his "starter home" in the flashback in "Full Measure" with Skyler.
However, in the back of his mind he begins to fear failing his grand aspirations. He begins fearing failing his mother, who worked hard for him all his life to put him through college, and he begins fearing failing himself, proving all of those people who looked down on him right. As such he stops himself from taking risks and stops putting himself out there and as a consequence in fact doesn't make his dreams come true. When he hears of the success Gretchen and Elliot have had without him he becomes bitter. He tries to salvage some of his self-esteem by claiming that it's "his work" that they made their money off of and that he's really the reason for their success (thus he can feel like he in fact has accomplished something). This fact haunts him however, since no one (including those rich kids who looked down on him or the mother who's efforts put him through college) will ever know he accomplished this and he will never benefit from it. This only strengthens his fears however and he continues to make conservative moves in life, eventually bringing him to the present day where he's 50 and still hasn't come anywhere near accomplishing all of the things he set out to accomplish. The abilities that he had which he showed up those rich kids with in college have amounted to nothing and instead he's in debt and only just scraping by while Gretchen and Elliot are living the high life.
This is where he is in the Pilot and I think this is part of what ends up fueling many of his future bids for power, fame and self-worth. I think this is what created the man who wouldn't give Gretchen the satisfaction of being his hero when she and her family looked down on him all those years ago. I think this is what created the man who, when asked what happened to him by Gretchen in Peekaboo, scoffs at her and becomes visibly angry because he feels like she's once again looking down on him. I think this is what lead to the perfect storm of events and psychological issues which gave us the beautiful and tragic story of a man undoing his own life out of deeply rooted pride.